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The Real Reason Germany Is Always Afraid

Berlin hesitates on everything because of its ruling party’s identity problems.

By , author of the book The Shortest History of Germany.
Olaf Scholz looks on during a two-day party meeting on February 07, 2021 in Berlin, Germany.
Olaf Scholz looks on during a two-day party meeting on February 07, 2021 in Berlin, Germany.
Olaf Scholz looks on during a two-day party meeting on February 07, 2021 in Berlin, Germany. Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Four years ago, in June 2018, I shared a platform in Berlin with then-Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Finance Minister Peter Altmaier to discuss whether Germany being “Sparweltmeister”—“saving world champion”—both in terms of its citizens and its government—was compatible with a successful European Union.

The question was how to put this in a long perspective. My book The Shortest History of Germany: From Julius Caesar to Angela Merkel ends with a call for Germany to understand its own history properly and have the confidence to act as “a mighty land at the heart of the West.” Four years ago, that seemed to be about eurobonds, joint debt, and such economic expressions of solidarity, and my argument felt urgent enough: Halfway through the Q&A, Altmaier got a message on his phone and left, explaining grimly that “Italy might be about to drop out of the Euro.” Yes, that seemed about as bad as things could get.

A lot has changed in four years. The question now is not whether Germany will adopt policies to enhance cohesion but whether it will take the lead—or at least, not be the brake—on decisive action to counter naked military aggression of the most brutal kind against a fellow European country that avowedly wishes to adopt Western values. If not, the very notion of those Western values is at stake.

Four years ago, in June 2018, I shared a platform in Berlin with then-Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Finance Minister Peter Altmaier to discuss whether Germany being “Sparweltmeister”—“saving world champion”—both in terms of its citizens and its government—was compatible with a successful European Union.

The question was how to put this in a long perspective. My book The Shortest History of Germany: From Julius Caesar to Angela Merkel ends with a call for Germany to understand its own history properly and have the confidence to act as “a mighty land at the heart of the West.” Four years ago, that seemed to be about eurobonds, joint debt, and such economic expressions of solidarity, and my argument felt urgent enough: Halfway through the Q&A, Altmaier got a message on his phone and left, explaining grimly that “Italy might be about to drop out of the Euro.” Yes, that seemed about as bad as things could get.

A lot has changed in four years. The question now is not whether Germany will adopt policies to enhance cohesion but whether it will take the lead—or at least, not be the brake—on decisive action to counter naked military aggression of the most brutal kind against a fellow European country that avowedly wishes to adopt Western values. If not, the very notion of those Western values is at stake.

What, then, was the problem with Germany, which was serious four years ago but is facing life or death now? To put it simply: It is the fearfulness of Germany and, more specifically, of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which is now the senior partner in government. This is a cultural phenomenon that has now become a political problem.

The most obvious sign of this fearfulness is the financial one. Why should the citizens of a country with excellent state health, education, and social security systems feel that they need to keep more in the bank than almost anybody else in Europe? Why should the finance ministers of a country that has in recent years always been able to borrow at equal to or less than 0.5 percent (or even at negative rates) be obsessed with the famous Black Zero (a balanced government budget with no new borrowing), until COVID-19 finally made them shift in 2020? But this obsessive fear that a rainy financial day might come is only the visible tip of a deep psychological iceberg.

French voters and governments seemed, and seem, entirely unmoved by Japan’s nuclear accident at Fukushima; in Germany, it led immediately to the abandoning of a perfectly well-functioning nuclear program. Nobody else seems much worried by “Chlorhühner” (chickens washed in chlorine to preserve them); in Germany, consumers are utterly terrified of them. I don’t know of any study that shows Germans are more likely than, say, Spaniards, to actually do things on the internet that might open them up to prosecution or blackmail, yet Germans are obsessed to an astonishing extent with protecting their online data. Other governments deliver weapons to Ukraine, limited only to the point where they might cause direct confrontation between their own forces and the Russians; Germany, the world’s fifth-largest arms exporter, seems unable to bring itself to follow suit. The German press has been widely reporting that iodine tablets, assumed to protect against nuclear fallout, are selling out across the nation, even though the Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, and Balts, who would seem logically to be in more immediate danger if things do literally go nuclear, seem uninterested in prophylactic radiation treatment. And then there is the idea that a hit of perhaps 3 percent in GDP—about the same as ruling British politicians seem perfectly happy to countenance as the price of Brexit—is far too scary a price for Germany to pay for turning off Russian President Vladimir Putin’s gas and wrecking his economy.

It does not, surely, require a doctorate in psychology to suggest that a nation that seems so terribly scared of everything is, at bottom, scared of itself. By way of proof, look what Germans are splendidly not scared of. Compare Germany’s and Britain’s responses to Ukrainian refugees. The British government acts as though terrified that it might ignite unstoppable xenophobia in its voters. No such fear in Germany: There, politicians clearly assume that the Germans will fearlessly welcome their desperate fellow humans. Germany’s national fearfulness is not xenophobic but Germanophobic: They—or rather, a specific, large group of them—are worried that the moment they stop being absolutely on their guard, terrible things will happen. To put it polemically: These Germans seem to fear (or, at any rate, their politicians assume they fear) that if they do not insist on being the hardest-saving, most carefully consuming, most ecologically responsible, most pacifistically inclined, least nationally patriotic people in Europe, they will suddenly flip into Nazis.

So which group is it? Here, it’s important for foreign onlookers to realize that German politics is as geographically split as U.S. politics—and always has been. From 1871 to 1933, it was a three-way split. Eastern German voters (the East was much bigger then, of course) consistently voted for hard-line authoritarian parties: first the Prussian conservatives, then the German National People’s Party (DNVP), then the Nazi Party. (Today, the east is the stronghold of the Alternative for Germany party.) Catholic Germans from the Rhineland and southern Germany, secure in an ancient identity, stuck to their very own Centre Party through thick and thin. The group with the identity problem was northern German Protestants.

They certainly were not the feudal, militaristic, Prussian “East Elbians” (to use economist Maximilian Weber’s phrase), who after 1871 claimed to own German national identity. But they were equally clearly not Rhineland/southern Catholics, firm in their ancient belonging to a European continuum. So what were they?

From the late 19th century, the SPD provided an entire shadow state identity for these voters, based on the notion that non-Prussian, non-Catholic Germany wasn’t nowhere but everywhere: It was the land of philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the great driver and leader of a new, millennial universalism. For the young Vladimir Lenin, for example, it was axiomatic that the German SPD would lead the way to the international socialist utopia. This is the cultural antecedent of those indiscriminately internationalist, take-the-moral-high-ground, “pro-peace” movements that are so familiar in Germany today.

In mass industrial areas of northern Germany that had strong labor union structures, the SPD was indeed able to provide this identity. But in its small towns, in nonunionized industries like transportation, and especially in the so-called Protestant islands within the Catholic south, the lack of strong cultural belonging made Protestant electors far more vulnerable than Catholics to the all-too-modern feeling, catch-all oppositionist appeal of the Nazis. In 1930, when supporters of the Prussian, Protestant, monarchist, militarist DNVP migrated en masse to the Nazi Party, it was north German Protestant votes that enabled Adolf Hitler to overcome the three-way split and break out of the old, Eastern authoritarian stronghold to national status.

With the dream of the world socialist utopia hopelessly compromised by the reality of the Soviet Union after World War II, the SPD didn’t get back to power in Germany until 1969. It did so by tacitly appealing to the other great, old fear among those Germans who are otherwise uncertain of their identity: the fear of “Amerikanisierung.”

Former German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” (“Eastern Policy”) wasn’t explicitly anti-American, but it clearly implied that an SPD-led Germany would not be (as the CDU had always been) unquestioningly pro-NATO. The half-shown anti-American card has been useful for the SPD ever since: In 2002, then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who later famously took big-paying jobs with Rosneft and Gazprom, edged his second term by the narrowest of margins after headlining his refusal to join the Iraq War. Most lately, in 2021, SPD leader Olaf Scholz carefully appealed to voters of the hard left Die Linke: Despite its leaders explicitly wanting to dissolve NATO, Scholz always refused to rule it out as a coalition party. Its voters took the hint: Around 820,000 of them switched to the SPD, easily its biggest cohort gain from 2017, close to 2 percent of the national vote, which enabled Scholz to become the leader of the largest party by 1.6 percent. The SPD was by now long committed to being the quintessential party of what German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called “a common European house, including Russia.”

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying SPD voters switched to the Nazis (very few did) or that they supported the Soviet Union (they clearly didn’t) or Putin (they clearly don’t). But the social milieu that provides the SPD with most of its voters—in Venn diagram terms, the larger circle around the SPD vote—is northern Germans of Protestant cultural tradition. They suffer from that great German fearfulness of many things but, above all, of Americanization to a peculiar degree because they suffer from the most culturally debilitating thing of all: lack of a firm identity. No wonder Scholz’s SPD insists that Germany can’t take any unilateral actions, and seems to doubt that its homeland can cope socially with the modest economic shock that would result from stopping gas imports and bankrupting Putin’s Russian within a month or two.

It is thus no real surprise to find that the politicians leading the growing cry for Germany to step up to the plate are from other parties whose sense of themselves and their electorates is perfectly firm. Leading the charge is Norbert Röttgen, one of last year’s CDU leadership candidates, whose party has always been absolutely sure of its identity as a political and cultural champion of the West. The Greens, too, are confident in their own nature as a movement whose concerns are inherently international, thus requiring that they take a hard line on blatantly real and present dangers to the world like Putin’s invasion.

What was true in June 2018 is even truer now: It is time for modern Germany—and above all, for the SPD—to stop being scared of a Nazi shadow that is not its own but is the projection of something that for the most part is long dead and gone. The Germany of today is not only cleared by history, properly understood, to be a geopolitical actor but is required to be so. Judy Dempsey, editor in chief at Strategic Europe, was right when she tweeted: “Why don’t @Bundeskanzler and many @Bundestag go to Kiev, Kharkiv, Mariupol, to see what is happening?”

Germany has been saving hard for many years. If not for now, for when? If not for this, for what?

James Hawes is author of the book The Shortest History of Germany.

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